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Autumn and the beginning of a year

November 19, 2017

Lichen and long shadows near Newton St Loe, November 2017

Aside from a five year break about a decade ago and an earlier period I can’t remember, I’ve spent all of my life in some way bound to the cycle of the academic year, in which renewal comes in autumn. This affects how I map out time in my mind. February 2018 is “this year” to me; September 2018 is not. This odd desynchronising of a mental calendar from the actual calendar is not unique to the education system however, and resonates with a more ancient and necessary organisation of time – the farming year.

“Farming” for me consists of a few pots on an inner city balcony – my autumn tasks were to plant garlic cloves, sow some early vegetables and clear a seemingly endless blizzard of plane tree (Platanus sp.) leaves to deny shelter to troublesome invertebrates. For a traditional farmer though, autumn is also the season of renewal. For arable farmers, the harvest will be ending (save for crops like sugar beet that are harvested into December), and preparations beginning for that of next year. The land will be manured and tilled and winter wheat, barley and oats may be sown. For livestock farmers in wet areas, cattle may be moved onto winter fodder. Sheep will be mated for spring lambs.

For farmers, and perhaps especially farmers in pre-mechanised societies of the past, difficult decisions need to be made in autumn. Sowing crops in autumn is a gamble. If it pays off it allows a staggered harvest, and light frosts may induce more productivity in crops. Heavy frosts, however, can destroy the crop. As Peter Reynolds noted in his excellent Shire Archaeology book Ancient Farming (1987), fields selected for autumn-sown crops are likely to be those away from high plateaus and valley bottoms to avoid the most severe frosts.

Livestock farmers would have had to turn their attention to culling the herd or flock. Non-breeding stock – young males and old females – are a drain on winter resources. The cull would necessitate a flurry of activity butchering, and salting or smoking meat. Grazing would be eked out as long as possible to conserve winter fodder – if this was mismanaged, further culls would likely follow. For a farming society, autumn is logically a season of renewal, the end of one year’s work and the beginning of another.

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